I Can’t Wait for this Campaign to End

I am dying for the presidential campaign to end so that I can relax; and I’m sure that many of you feel the same.

Most of all, I want to know the outcome.  It needs to be Hillary Clinton. The anticipation is hard, like waiting for your baby to be born.  You can’t wait.  It’s beyond exciting, but you also carry that little bit of dread until you count her fingers, hear her cry, hold her in your arms.

The campaign has held me captive.  Like an addict needing his next fix, I have watched TV news much more than ever before.  I have read the newspapers and online journals like a starving man in search of food.  Often, there’s nothing healthy to eat but I’ll eat anything.  With each passing week, the need grows.  Even as Hillary Clinton’s lead grows, I search everywhere for reassurance that this cruel, narcissistic, unstable man will not assume our nation’s mantle.

Do you recognize me in yourself?  I’ve not only grown addicted and anxious, I feel dirty, fouled by his words, fouled even by looking at him.  He is disgusting.  I can’t stand to see his face.  I can’t stand to hear his voice.  I can’t bear reading his words.  Yet I do.  I read and I watch and I listen until I feel slightly nauseated.  Sometimes, I feel like I can’t catch my breath and my heart starts to pump too quickly.  I want to bring my pulse down.

Is this neurotic?  Maybe.  But the campaign has invaded our consciousness and polluted our minds.  People tell me that they dream about it.  It’s not just how dishonest and nasty he is, how much he speaks in word salad—has he ever spoken a coherent paragraph?—how mocking and preening he is, how dismissive he is of others.  It’s that we are compelled—no, impelled—to watch.  We choose even when it doesn’t entirely feel like it.

We are pulled into a world of misbehaving children.  He responds to criticism as a child does.  If you criticize him, he comes back at you: you do it too; you’re worse than I am.  You are Putin’s puppet, Clinton says.  No, you are, you are, you are, he responds in that whiny, accusing voice of his, trying to obliterate her message.  No matter what you say in criticism, he’s right back at you and he’ll say anything.  We are pulled into a playground with a big, big boy who lacks impulse control.  We are ready to laugh at him or run from him or confront him—all at the same time.  At the very least, he should have a “time out.”  What a relief that would be.

We watch him the way we’d slow to watch a terrible car accident.  It’s awful but we seem compelled to see the wreckage.  There’s also a serious reason: he might win.  The thought of him in the White House parrying childishly with foreign leaders, Democratic politicians, “advisors,”—all potential ‘enemies—is chilling.  But that’s what would happen if he were not the center of attention, when he couldn’t have his way, if people don’t like him.  Treaties and policy would be decided on a simple basis: you like me or you don’t. Hillary Clinton says we can’t trust him with nuclear arms.  True.  But, day by day, we cant trust him to deal decently or intelligently with the business of leadership.

Against our better judgment, we keep watching, as though the very act might stop him.  Unconsciously we feel compelled to watch because we might be the last barrier to his destructive ends.  We are afraid to turn away.  He might say something to offend or endanger people we care about or encourage those who might endanger us.  On the lighter side, he might miss him saying something so awful or stupid that we would miss our opportunity tell our friends.  Gallows humor fills our conversation.

We can’t stop because he says that he won’t abide the peaceful transfer of power, the cornerstone of democratic leadership.  He talks about the end of civilization and rallies his troops to revolt.  He is preaching insurrection.  We are too close to the era of Mussolini and Hitler, who rose precipitously to power by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of constitutional rules and processes, not to take his threats at least a little seriously. We know that insurrection, even in this great nation, is possible.  We can’t stop watching because, however slim the chance of mass insurrection, it is possible. We need to be prepared.  Crazy and paranoid as it may sound, we watch so we can sound the alarm.

He is so frightened of losing and being seen as a loser, that he won’t concede the election even after Clinton wins it fair and square.  He calls on his followers to lift their arms to fight this outcome.  He calls for “watchers” to intimidate voters.  Much of these messages are barely coded are crystal clear to those who heed his call.  The call to arms, the evocation of a Second Amendment army, is treasonous.  It is dangerous.  And I have to admit that I have occasionally wondered whether President Obama has a plan to put down the rebellion, to arrest those who violently oppose the legitimacy of a new president.

Some, maybe most people, believe he’ll calm down after the election.  Or back off because he doesn’t like to work so hard.  But I think he’s bitten Eden’s apple, that his craving for attention has been jacked up exponentially and that he’ll need it as badly as ever. Imagine what he’ll have to say and do to keep the attention focused on him as much as it now is.

In other countries, maybe even at other times in the United States, his treasonous stance would have led to arrest.  It is ironic and it is fortunate that President Obama—and Democrats in general—won’t play the third world game of jailing their opponent.  They won’t fall so low.  They also don’t want to spook the election process which is finally going well.  I would do the same.  But even this kind of restraint is tiring.

Just being mature can be wearing.  Any parent knows that sustaining a quiet, calm, and loving presence in the face of a child’s tantrums can be trying and tiring.  It takes discipline, which we lovingly exercise with children we love.  It takes even more discipline with other people’s children.  And it takes a great deal of effort when the tantrum comes from a child we don’t particularly like.  Like the presidential candidate.  It takes work to remain calm, to remember that we love our country and its democratic values more than we dislike the candidate.  So the discipline is extremely important.

Our vigil is exhausting.  It is exhausting in the way that wears down battered children and wives.  They know to be vigilant, to keep their guard up.  They need to be focused and awake to the potential for danger. There is no rest.

Throughout my life, I have been spared this kind of experience.  I have been spared the experience of sexual assault.  I have not feared deportation and imprisonment.  I have not been afraid.  But I think I can identify just a little better with all of his victims and potential victims.  And I want to be free of this exhausting vigilance.

Last night’s third debate feels like it may be decisive, and I already feel a little relieved.  I find my body a little calmer.  I am obsessing a little less about the campaign and its aftermath.  I hope I’m not premature.  Anything can happen.  And, to show my true colors, I hope I’m not jinxing the campaign.  It needs to conclude well.  I need to be freed from its captivity.  How about you?

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Suing others does not Lead to Justice

While the huckster and the hurricane have kept us glued to our TV screens, a very important event has passed by with much too little attention:  the passage of a bill that permits Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for the death and destruction of the World Trade Center bombings.  It is called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).  What makes this bi-partisan bill so important?  Implicit in the Act is the belief that Americans can take legal action against governments but people from other countries will not or cannot reciprocate.  I’d like to explain how short-sighted, dangerous, and distorted this reasoning is.

First, let’s review the facts.  There was the 9/11 attack, planned and executed by Osama Bin Laden.  There is no proof that the Saudi Arabian government participated in this terrorist operation.  If they did, we might have taken the attack as an act of war; even the bellicose Bush administration didn’t do that.  Second, there is the internationally shared legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which says that “a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.”  To date, the United States has agreed to this doctrine.  Yet the Senate voted 97 to 1 and the House voted 348 to 77 to override President Obama’s veto of the bill.

And let’s remember that the right to sue is not the same as holding people and nations to account by bringing them to world tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This we can do.

Imagine what might happen if we really do abandon the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  How, for example, would we respond to Vietnamese families, who grieve their dead as much as we do, if they decided to sue the United States for the millions of people the United States killed and maimed in a useless war?  Would we accept the legitimacy of these legal claims?  What about Iraq, where we began a war on the false premises of weapons of mass destruction, murdering thousands, destroying homes and public buildings, and, in the process, precipitating civil war?  What about the relatives of those murdered—we call it “collateral damage”—during drone attacks.  What about the relish that people around the world would take in seeking reparations—or a big payday—by suing the wealthy American government.  The courts would be brought to a standstill by thousands of law suits and would be hard pressed to rule that the United States is different from other nations.

In short, the United States Congress has demonstrated both a clear double standard and an almost total absence of strategic foresight.

Beyond the strategic implications of JASTA, there is the symbolism: what it tells us about our society.

American society is destructively litigious.  When Americans feel wronged, they sue.  Why?  To lash out, to punish, to get even.  This is the biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye.”  But is there really solace and satisfaction in vengeance?  Does that make up for our losses?  Does it relieve our grief?  Does it bring back our loved ones?  I don’t think so.  When there is injury and costs involved in caring for the injured, I am very much in favor of legal action.  But death is another thing.  Then we must mourn.  We must come to terms with our losses, however terrible and however difficult.  If possible, we mourn with others and, in that strange, awful twist of fate, grow closer through tragedy.  But vengeance tends to divide and embitter.  It leaves a sour taste in our mouths.  It solves nothing.  It makes a mockery of our belief in justice.

How about deterrence, the power of law suits to send a warning to those who would harm us?  I have seen virtually no proof in the sociological literature that punishment deters criminals, no less terrorists.  Let’s just dismiss this idea.  It is a rationalization for our desire for revenge.

Then there is the profit motive.  As the personal injury ads that pollute our TV screens tells us, there’s a potential gold mine out there.  If we’re miserable, maybe we can feel a little better if we’ve got money to spend.  There’s something to be proud of.

While our litigiousness tends to rot our society from within, our belief that America is different from other nations, that we are special and not subject to the same rules as others, does the same to our standing in the world.  We believe with our whole hearts that America is the greatest nation on earth.  And it’s true that our democratic ideals and the structure of our government are exceptional.  But there are two problems with exceptionalism.  First, we are in a period when the practice of democracy is strained.  Wealthy people, supported by decisions like Citizen’s United, wield more power and have more privilege than at almost any time in our history.  Voting rights are wantonly denied in many states. We are on the verge of becoming more a plutocracy than a democracy.  Poverty remains extremely high.  The presidential campaign—the symbolic centerpiece of democratic process—has people round the world horrified and repulsed.

We may still be one of the better places to live.  People still flock to our shores in search of the American dream.  But we are in a period of nativism, rejecting the very people who have made us strong.  And our foreign policy, in the name of great ideals, has never been so pure.  For centuries now, we have undermined regimes around the world when they do not agree with us or threaten our interests.  We believe ourselves to be superior to others, and that superiority gives us the right to tell others what to do—not in the candid language of realistic self-interest but in the language of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’  We do this with a straight face, even as we support some of the world’s worst regimes.  Here are a few: them Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Marcos in the Philippines, Saddam Hussein, Franco in Spain, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, and Pinochet in Peru.  Apparently, America’s exceptional qualities give us this right. This is the second problem with exceptionalism.

Let’s return to my original premise: We cannot construct an ethical and strategically sound justification to sustain our own “sovereign immunity” while denying it to other peoples and nations.   If we try, we will continue to undermine our own credibility, moral suasion, and international power.

A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.

 

We are fanning the flames of terror

Just before the Republican convention,  our attention shifted from police brutality—and the brutalization of policemen—back to terror.  Glued to our TV sets, we watch as bombs blast and trucks slam viciously into strolling French families.  We are horrified at the scene, filled with sympathy for the victims, enraged at the perpetrators.  We are also entertained.  It’s embarrassing but we can’t help ourselves; so we watch on like hypnotized patients in a hospital ward.  In our minds and to friends, we try to strategize.  What would we do if we had the power.  In reality, we feel helpless and we feel the need to do something.  Frustration is immense.

If we could step back, we might come to an uncomfortable truth: no matter how awful the killings, they do not come close to the numbers of deaths caused by traffic accidents, drug overdoses, and suicides, and certainly they are nothing compared to the self induced deaths due to smoking, poor diets, and substance abuse, not to mention the mass slaughter by Ebola-like pandemics.

This may be harsh but we need to ask why we pay so much attention to the terror and terror threats.  The first and foremost explanation is probably that, unconsciously, we think that we are keeping our finger in the dike.  If we stop paying attention, things could get worse.  We fear that these attacks could expand indefinitely and devastate Western civilization.  As keepers of our civilization, we need to understand what’s going on so we can demand that our leaders take proper action.

But by attending so closely, we play perfectly into the hands of terrorists.  The very purpose of terrorism is to arouse fear and panic, to disrupt lives and institutions.  Terror is meant for the living not those who are killed.  It intends to change our lives, to make us either too cautious, because we are fearful, or injudicious because we can’t help but react, no matter how lacking in strategy our actions may be.

Terrorist success depends on our frenzied reaction, and our current culture is primed to react that way.  The media, with its need to fill its twenty-four hour news cycle and to compete for viewers, feeds off of terror.  It builds frenzy with its lurid images and hyperbolic commentary.  Even the most professional journalists weigh in.  It’s their job.  I believe they do their job in spite of knowing that their  coverage aids and abets the terrorists.  They know that all of that air time builds fears and the desire for revenge.

Over the years, viewers have come to depend on the media for their adrenaline fix—and even just to fill the time.  They demand the endless coverage.  Then the demagogues—Trump, Johnson, Le Pen—feed off of the frenzy and the popular demand to do something, just something, preferably identifying the “true enemy” as a scapegoat.  The demagogues don’t really know what to do but they know they need to sound strong.  So they propose horrifying, violent, anti-democratic solutions to the terrorist problems.  To fix the threat to democracy and tolerance, the say, we must give up our democracy and tolerance.

There is, then a complex, parasitic relationship between the terrorists, the media, the populous, and the demagogues, who may be on the very of creating fascist states.  A vicious cycle has been created.  It goes something like this:

The more terrorists strike, the more the media cover it…

Which leads to increasing frenzy among masses of people…

Which provides opportunities for the demagogues…

Efforts to calm the frenzy (Obama) are seen as inadequate to the task, weak …

Observing their success is disrupting Western societies, terrorists strike again, media cover it more, people’s anxiety builds, and fertile grounds are provided for demagoguery.  The demagogues, in turn, fan the flames higher, the people call louder for a solution, the media cover their demands

And the vicious cycles keep on turning.

Who is responsible, then?  The answer is simple: All of us.  The fueling of crisis is inherent in the system, not in individual broadcasters, demagogues, and regular people.  We are all complicit.

I am aware the emphasizing the complexity of the problem has its limits as an analytical strategy.  It can let everyone off the hook.  If everyone is responsible and if the process is out of control, who will take responsibility to stop it.  And it is out of control.  You don’t even hear anyone talking sincerely about stopping it anymore, except in extreme ways like banning whole ethnic groups from your home turf.

I have no ready solution to this catastrophic relationship, but I do know a well-established principle in the theory of change: when you try one solution and it doesn’t work, then try it again or try a slightly different version of the same solution, and keep on trying in the same vein, then the solution itself becomes the problem.  The repetitive interaction of the parts creates an impasse, a massive road block.

In other words, we can’t keep trying the same old thing.  Everyone can’t keep playing the same old roles—neither the demagogues nor President Obama nor the news media.  We need to do something different.  What?  Again, let me begin with a principle in the theory of change:  if you stop one part, one component of the vicious cycle, then all of the other parts will do something different, too.

Are we trapped in our own morass?  Must we play the losing hand in the terrorists’ game?  I hope not.  I don’t know who has the courage and insight to step out of their assigned roles, but someone must, or else the vicious cycle can build into chaos or conflagration.